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Thursday, June 30, 2011


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Tuesday, June 28, 2011


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Monday, June 27, 2011

THE JUDGES OF THE SECRET COURT: A Novel About John Wilkes Booth

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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Review-a-Day for Mon, Jun 20: And If You Don't Go Crazy I'll Meet You Here Tomorrow

by Filip Marinovich A review by Ian Bodkin

We are not stable where we stand. Whether by a tweet or a twit, pop-up or pop-out, podcast, feed, or alert, we are aware the earth is in flux, a constant of revolution. Just as enumerable permutations hang behind a thought, tune, or Internet search, the poems of And If You Don't Go Crazy I'll Meet You Here Tomorrow by Filip Marinovich take us into the conscience of the new-new-neoteric. From Belgrade to Manhattan, Kandahar to your local ashram, he is the nomad with his eye on our world. The poems bring us in through the poet's eye along the nerve to where neurons twist, twirl, bend, and fire by the disarray created in a memory. As chaos is the natural state of the universe, And If You Don't Go Crazy I'll Meet You Here Tomorrow illuminates and maps the reflective state in humanity.

The pace and rhythm with which Marinovich directs the reader makes for some of the more striking features in this collection. In the first poem, "Kalemegdan," we are given a speaker in transition, attempting to accept loss. He has returned to New York City, haunted by the death of his grandfather: "I want to be the machine you take apart so I can stop fearing / pain and joy of seeing you in dreams and feel your flesh / but you're all ashes now in an urn in Belgrade I return to only in sleep." The words themselves are mainly monosyllables commanding us to swallow each in rapid succession. However, with the absence of typical punctuation, Marinovich makes us read and then re-read so that the hard snap of each word is felt.

Throughout the collection, Marinovich moves from a patient introspective voice to that of a man trying to name the world. With each image, he depicts the manifestations of the self as he ponders the deeper mysteries of relationships from the banal or more immediate desires to the finer connections of deep love. On the canvas of many poems, we see the languages of pop, utility, and ceremony converge. In the poem "Sanguis," Marinovich creates a meditation through the elements of the body and the movement of cultural reference:

John Revelator
seats himself
at orange Naugahyde
diner booth in his cave
for dictation WAIT
B r e a t h e
A modern-day amalgamation of the blues song and the biblical writer, this John sits down in a most nondescript setting to begin his apocalypse. Yet, just as Marinovich brings us to this climactic moment, the poet's hand goes up, and we are reminded of a basic bodily function; in chaos and a possible end of times, we are given cover.

Marinovich is not a poet to exchange pleasantries. He is not going to ask about the weather, though it may be mentioned. He will not lead the reader down through the circles as Vergil to Dante, yet he may take a path parallel. In "The Cathedral of St. John the Divine," he does give "you cunnilingus in a dark alcove / while poets took turns reciting 'The Inferno' / in the Poet's corner. It was your turn." He goes on to express the conflicting memories of a relationship and the moment it breaks. The lurid or risque nature with which some scenes are depicted in And If You Don't Go Crazy I'll Meet You Here Tomorrow are not seeking sensationalism. Marinovich reprocesses the words, captures their vulgarity, and employs them in a way that the reader confronts their implications.

Along with being a book driven by language, And If You Don't Go Crazy I'll Meet You Here Tomorrow is a collection framed in ritual and reflection. A later poem, "Light Around a Pilot," is set in seven parts as Marinovich returns to the loss of his grandfather. The first section, in which he runs the Slovenian translation down the left hand margin, superseding the English, gives us "wolves in the verbs," but later in section "V. Instrumentalities," we stand with the poet as he addresses himself, "Fil / artifact is ash / ash is artifact." Throughout the collection a constant confrontation is made between death and the art or remains of humanity.

In the longest and final poem of the collection, "Bodhisattva Graphomania," Marinovich brings together all the churning symbols of Zen, ceremony, movement, self, and death. We learn with the speaker as he communes with himself and his Roshi, or teacher. It is in this poem that Marinovich makes the most use of white space and the way the words are presented on the page. In one section we see the image of a Bhodi tree and in the next what seems to symbolize a river. Still, along with the symbolic word structure, Marinovich also captures us in the meanings behind them:

I paused before
That's where you bow
and cross
and start
your walk
With this last poem, the journey of the book is made clear as we step from the grief and the hodgepodge of our modern world into mediation and artifact, the art left behind.

In the end, it is the aspect of art and what traces remain with us when we leave that carries the strongest voice in these poems. And If You Don't Go Crazy I'll Meet You Here Tomorrow is a collection that challenges its reader without apology. However, through the conscious hand of Filip Marinovich, we are taken from (and in some cases through) the world's distractions to come out the other side to a place we once called truth. Click here to subscribe

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review-a-Day for Sun, Jun 19: Ten Thousand Saints

by Eleanor Henderson A review by Phoebe Connelly

On Aug. 6, 1988, a collection of squatters, anarchists and youths took over Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan's East Village to protest a new 1 a.m. curfew. By the time the fated hour rolled around, the gathering had turned violent as police attempted to shut down the park. The crowd was there to protect a neighborhood where, as Eleanor Henderson puts it in Ten Thousand Saints, "there were shadows to hide in. Here you didn't advertise being gay or straight or rich or poor; you just tried not to get your ass kicked." Injuries and reports of police brutality abounded.

Henderson picked this era of uneasy change for her sad, funny debut novel about growing up. Ten Thousand Saints opens with the death of 15-year-old Teddy on New Year's Eve 1987, and then follows as the tragedy unhinges the lives of three teenagers: his best friend, Jude, his brother Johnny and his one-night-stand, Eliza.

The novel uses as its backdrop the devastating AIDS crisis, the creeping gentrification of New York City and the straight-edge movement, which, in direct reaction to the excesses of the then-thriving punk scene, advocated for a drug-free, vegetarian lifestyle. Henderson lets these now historic events simmer, giving them little more existential weight than her bored, self-important teenagers would. Indeed, it's Eliza's pregnancy, which the three hold secret for many months, that becomes their purpose and talisman. "They spoke of it with giddiness and gravity, or with panic, or with a sense of duty, but always with breathless disbelief at their unexpected fortune," Henderson writes. Yes, the three appear at the Aug. 6 riot -- but only one of them is there to protest, the other two to argue over the future of Eliza's baby.

It's heartbreaking to watch this trio clumsily make their way in New York. Each grew up missing one or both parents and, perhaps inevitably, find it easier to blame themselves for their own struggles and sorrows: Johnny for his mother's abandonment, Jude for his friend Teddy's death. It's fitting that the adults in Ten Thousand Saints hover, mostly uselessly, around the edges of the novel, feeling less present, in many cases, than the departed Teddy.

Henderson, who received her MFA in fiction from University of Virginia and now teaches at Ithaca College, captures the fraught, incomplete stories that teenagers manufacture about their lives. After meeting his estranged dad, Johnny feels a false rush of assurance, "like a son, as though he had a mother and a father, parents who were screwed up in a legendary, acceptable way." (Perhaps it's this fantasy of domesticity that stirs Johnny to, for all the wrong reasons, marry Eliza.) And in the absence of a coherent family, music provides the illusion of one for Jude, who becomes a guitarist in a straight-edge band, taking to the road on tour because "bands weren't just bands. They were troops. They were tribes."

Henderson's novel reminds us of how blunt teenagers are, and, by extension, how honest. She has a perfect ear for conversation between siblings -- the way a lazy spat can turn into a grudging moment of closeness. And the euphoria of the straight-edge movement that Jude and Johnny embrace suffuses the novel with a reckless, glib joy. (See their roadie's essay, "How I Spend My Summer Vacation".) At times, Ten Thousand Saints feels overplotted, as if the author had let her cast of love-and-drug-besotted misfits take the reins. But that haphazardness paired with the sometime painful teenage rites of passage, adds up to a bittersweet, lovely book.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Review-a-Day for Sat, Jun 18: Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV

by Ben Shapiro A review by Gerry Donaghy

Were you aware that television has been trying to turn you into a latté-sipping, pro-gay, recycling Trotskyist? Did you know that Friends was not about a bunch of photogenic 20-somethings frolicking in New York, but rather an entertaining piece of agitprop designed to promote promiscuity? Did you know that Norman Lear was (gasp) a Jew?

Ben Shapiro has taken it upon himself to alert unsuspecting viewers in his new book, Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV. Shapiro, a young darling of the conservative set, writes that the programs we see on television each night aren't purely escapist entertainment but rather "small-scale, insidiously brilliant leftist propaganda."

I have to admit that when I saw this book, I was ready to be peppered by examples of how poor, privileged (Harvard Law alumnus) Ben was being helplessly assaulted by images of people being tolerant of homosexuals and critical of traditional values, and I wasn't disappointed. You would have thought that Shapiro was strapped into a chair with his eyelids pried open A Clockwork Orange-style and forced to watch endless reruns of All in the Family and The Mod Squad.

According to Shapiro, television's fatal flaw is that "it's awesome." He found himself after a hard day writing about how evil television was "watching the very shows that [he] was criticizing." It is this inherent awesomeness that makes television programming such an effective Trojan horse for Liberals to deliver their pedagogy of tolerance night after night.

Ultimately, what bothers Shapiro isn't so much that television is awesome or that it can deliver political messages disguised as entertainment; rather, it is that television is dominated by liberals, and, as gatekeepers to the industry, they bar conservatives from having a chance to peddle their ideology. Or, as Shapiro puts it: "liberals employ a mirror form of McCarthyism on a large scale."

Shapiro discovered this first hand when he tried writing a television script on spec only to be told that an agent had Googled his name, found out he was a conservative, and told him that his "political views will make it impossible for [him] to get a job in this town." What doesn't occur to him is that perhaps the problem is not just that he's a conservative, but that he's a conservative who uses the media to trash talk the industry he's trying to break into.

To his credit, Shapiro interviewed quite a few producers and writers in Hollywood, and the portions of the interviews that he quotes go a long way to support his thesis that Hollywood is run by a bunch of Obama- and Clinton-loving lefties, but not so much that Hollywood is somehow maintaining a blacklist of conservatives that will never work in this town again. If this were the case, such bastions of traditional American values like Home Improvement, Everybody Loves Raymond and 24 would never have been green-lighted.

Also missing from Shapiro's invective is that he never really clarifies the problems with liberal opinions. For example, Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone and Gene Rodenberry, creator of Star Trek, are taken to task for creating shows that used science fiction and fantasy scenarios as metaphors for the Civil Rights struggles that were going on at the time. Would he rather that Roddenberry followed the episode of Star Trek featuring television's first interracial kiss with an episode supporting the illegality of interracial marriage?

Another infuriating aspect of this book is Shapiro's glibness in comparing being conservative to being black or gay, writing such statements as: "[E]ven successful conservatives who come out of the closet in Hollywood often experience worse discrimination than gays who come out of the closet in society more broadly." I'm sorry, somebody who loses friends, contacts, or jobs is still faring better than gays who are targeted and beaten, sometimes with fatal outcomes. In attempting to compare his ideological marginalization to the struggles endured by African Americans and gays, Shapiro trivializes his argument.

Where I think Shapiro gets it right is his examination of how the Clinton and Obama administrations have been very lenient towards the media companies and their attempts at further consolidation. While not covering the issue to the degree of Ben Bagdikian or Noam Chomsky, Shapiro almost sounds like a liberal when he writes things like: "Consumers are the ones who lose when cable companies hold monopolies." While he stops short of advocating a break-up of such conglomerates, I appreciate that Shapiro isn't taking the typical ultra-right approach that the market will take care of itself.

In fact, when Shapiro isn't either indulging in ideological hyperbole or taking the time to mention each and every time he comes across a Jew (odd, as Shapiro himself is Jewish), he comes across as a pretty reasonable guy, which makes his analysis so much more painful. The left and right fall over themselves arguing that the media is biased too heavily one way or the other. The bottom line is that almost all media is corporate media, devoid of any agenda besides profit. The minute it becomes more profitable for Fox to air Glenn Beck monologues in the place of The Simpsons, it will.

America's favorite export is outrage, and there is no shortage of it on either side. I just have a hard time generating sympathy when straight white males complain that they're being marginalized.


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Review-a-Day for Tue, Jun 21: The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture

by Evelyn Fox Keller A review by Daniel W. McShea

Is there anything new to say about how we should understand the nature-nurture problem? The answer is yes, and it is not because there are conceptual matters still unresolved. It is because no one has offered a way to think about the problem that is simple and grabs the imagination. Absent a clarifying story, teachers continue to struggle to explain it to students. And some of us continue to write books and papers in which we say or imply things we do not literally mean about nature and nurture, genes and environment, heritability and plasticity -- things we later regret having phrased the way we did. So wouldn't it be nice if there were a small book that explained, clearly and simply, how to understand the problem, pitfalls and all; if there were a concise manual -- something like Strunk and White's famous style guide -- that we could just hand to our students; if there were a little manifesto that we could curl up with and reread every couple of years to restore to our thinking the clarity we know this difficult subject deserves? The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture, by Evelyn Fox Keller, may be just the book we've been waiting for.

Here is the issue she is addressing. We sometimes think of nature and nurture as distinct and separable causes, each with its own quantifiable contribution to a given trait. But at the same time, we know that every trait requires both, that genes alone produce nothing (as does environment alone, for that matter), and that therefore in a developing individual, both are 100 percent responsible for every single trait. In the metaphors Keller cites, drum and drummer are each 100 percent responsible for the beat we hear, bricks and mortar are each 100 percent responsible for the wall that is being built, and the person at the end of a hose aiming a stream of water into a bucket and the person turning the valve at the spigot both get 100 percent of the credit for filling the bucket. In such cases, it is absurd to think about quantitative partitioning of causes. So why do we slip? Why do we even occasionally hear ourselves suggesting, with a sober countenance, that Suzy's shyness might be partly genetic, when we know already for certain that it is both 100 percent genetic and 100 percent environmental?

Keller argues that much of the trouble has to do with linguistic practice, with slippages in usage and concepts. In her apt words, the nature-nurture debate is a "morass of linguistic and conceptual vegetation grown together in ways that seem to defy untangling." Undaunted, she takes on the task of untangling, focusing on two key points, two areas where words have historically set us up to muddy things that we know should be perfectly clear. First, it should be clear that difference makers (the factors responsible for observed differences in particular phenotypic traits) are not the same as trait makers (the developmental processes by which the trait came to be) -- that difference makers may be only trivially involved in the production of a trait. The address on an envelope makes a huge difference in where the letter goes but has little to do with generating the process that actually gets it there. And reciprocally, variation in a hugely important trait maker may produce only trivial differences in the result. The U.S. Postal Service gets my letter there about as reliably as the United Parcel Service, despite the many differences between the two organizations.

So the difference between difference making and trait making is clear. And in biology, we know that mutation studies in developmental genetics tell us only about difference making. So why, when we find a mutant gene that affects a trait (a difference maker), do we jump so easily to the claim that this gene is critical in the production of the trait (a trait maker)? Keller traces such slippages back to the first mutation studies in the early 20th century, and remarks:

It is hard to imagine that the early slippage was entirely accidental. To think of genes simply as difference makers would have been to detract from the power of the gene concept. Mapping difference makers and tracking their assortment through reproduction may have been all that the techniques of classical genetics could do, but the aims of these scientists were larger. What made genes interesting in the first place was their presumed power to mold and form -- in a word, their presumed power to act.... [And] the easy slide between genes as difference makers and genes as trait makers perpetuated the illusion (as widespread among geneticists as it was among their readers) that an increased understanding of the effects of gene differences would enhance our understanding of what it is that the entities called genes actually do.
Times have changed -- somewhat. As Keller points out, the modern focus is on expression patterns and on the role of noncoding DNA, not just on the genes themselves. And given what we know now about the cyclically interactive processes of development, today's biologists are much less likely to attribute causal agency to genes (or even to DNA). But the problem has not disappeared. A mutant allele associated with a speech and language disorder still gets labeled a speech and language gene. We continue to slip.

The second slippage has to do with alternative meanings of heritability. Used colloquially, heritability has to do with the transmission of genes from parent to child. "Where did you get those brown eyes?" I'm asked. "I inherited them from my mother," I reply, intending to convey that my mother passed along to me certain genetic brown-eye-color difference makers. But studies of nature-nurture in humans use heritability in a very different and technical sense, what is called broad-sense heritability -- a measure of the proportion of phenotypic variation in a population that is due to the total genetic variation (including variation arising from gene-environment interactions). What this measure tells us, essentially, is the degree of resemblance between parents and offspring in a population, regardless of how that resemblance is transmitted from parent to offspring.

Now suppose that it is discovered that some trait -- shyness, say -- has high technical-sense heritability. When we hear this, we are likely to think that it tells us something about heritability in the colloquial sense, something about how Suzy came to be shy. Indeed, we might leap to the conclusion that she is shy because she inherited certain difference-making alleles from her parents, alleles that directly affect her individual psychology, making her more likely to be shy. Of course, that does not follow at all. Suzy could be shy for some other reason -- because she has a speech impediment that makes her self-conscious about asserting herself socially, for instance. Indeed, this could be true of all shy individuals. And in that case, technical-sense heritability would still be high, even though inheritance involves a critical cultural factor. (And in a different culture -- one where speech impediments were more socially acceptable, for example -- the heritability of shyness might be much lower.)

So we know that this move from a measure of population heritability to a conclusion about the genetic contribution to a trait difference in an individual lineage is unwarranted, but we do it anyway. Here is Keller again:

Most behavioral geneticists would agree that a mistake has been made when explicit claims about the genetic basis of individual traits are inferred from measures of technical heritability, or at least I hope they would. More commonly, however, such claims are formulated simply in terms of heritable traits, with the implication of a genetic basis left just short of explicit.... But if one were to confront the authors of such claims (as I have) with this obvious source of confusion, a common response is: "Yes, of course. But that's not the way I use the term; I use it merely to refer to measures of heritability in the population."
Keller's story of how we came to this, of the roots of these slippages in the history of biology, especially in the writings of Charles Darwin and of Francis Galton, is a fascinating one. I will not retell it here. Instead let us turn to the question with which she titles her last chapter, "What's to be done?" We could try to change the words we use -- for example, by ditching the word heritability for the population-level measure. But linguistic practice is highly resistant. Perhaps instead, Keller suggests, we can change the questions we ask. We are interested in nature-versus-nurture in part because we want to know which traits can be changed and which cannot, and for those that can be changed, we want to know how to change them. So instead of asking about genes versus environment, or heritable versus not, why not ask how malleable a trait is (at a given developmental age) and what factors actually affect it? Instead of asking, What are the genetic causes for trait X?, we could ask, What are the pathways that produce X? In answering this question, we would be interested in all of the resources involved in producing X, including DNA and its molecular products, of course, but also the many resources not manufactured by DNA. In making this suggestion, Keller is in good company. Essentially the same change of questions has been suggested by scholars in a school of thought known as developmental systems theory (William C. Wimsatt and Susan Oyama, for instance) and by some in developmental biology (Fred Nijhout, for example). These ideas have been in the air. Their time is coming.

In the meantime, while we await the coming change in the scientific culture, Keller's little essay is an excellent teaching resource -- and an excellent resource for reminding ourselves about the pitfalls of the current way of thinking. Anyone with an interest in the nature-nurture problem -- which is to say, almost everyone -- should read this book.

Daniel W. McShea is an associate professor of biology at Duke University. He is coauthor with Robert N. Brandon of Biology's First Law: The Tendency for Diversity and Complexity to Increase in Evolutionary Systems (University of Chicago Press, 2010) and is coauthor with Alex Rosenberg of Philosophy of Biology: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge, 2008). Click here to subscribe
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Sunday, June 19, 2011

KILLER STUFF AND TONS OF MONEY: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America

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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Review-a-Day for Thu, Jun 16: The Murder of the Century Signed Edition

by Paul Collins A review by Marc Mohan

A common complaint about journalism is that it focuses on the sordid, gruesome and melodramatic at the expense of "legitimate" reporting. Of course, this gripe is nothing new, as even a glance at the "yellow" journalism of more than a century ago reveals.

When William Randolph Hearst revolutionized the newspaper business in the 1890s, he did so by appealing to the same voyeuristic impulses that keep Nancy Grace on the air. He also left a colorful, detailed first draft of history, one Paul Collins draws upon to great effect in The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars.

Though less notorious these days than the gruesome exploits of Chicago serial killer H.H. Holmes (as related in Erik Larson's bestseller The Devil in the White City) or the high-society 1906 murder of architect Stanford White, the killing of William Guldensuppe was the talk of the town during summer and fall 1897 in New York.

The tale begins with the discovery of a parcel containing a headless, legless, mutilated torso floating in the East River; soon another package holding the abdomen and upper legs was discovered in Harlem. Initial suspicion that the gory bits were the work of mischievous medical students gave way to the reality of murder.

It was the sort of sensational story Hearst's New York Journal thrived on, and, especially early in the case, reporters uncovered just as many, if not more, clues than an overworked, unsophisticated police force. (These were the early days of forensic science before fingerprinting was in use in America.) The intense rivalry between the Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World drove them to extremes of investigative journalism and blatant puffery. But it's arguable the crime may never have been solved without their efforts.

Collins, a Portland State University professor and the "literary detective" on NPR's "Weekend Edition," has skillfully utilized contemporary articles, as well as later memoirs by participants, to craft a dialogue-heavy, richly detailed book that reads like a novel and yet maintains a strict fidelity to the facts. (Of course, this is to assume that the quotes he lifts weren't simply invented by Hearst's or Pulitzer's ambitious scribes.) A grab-bag of colorful factoids leaps off the page -- you'll learn the origins of both the term "the third degree" and the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog.

The Murder of the Century isn't a case of history with a moral. It won't alter your perception of the past or bring to light some long-buried social injustice. It's simply a fantastic, factual yarn, and a reminder that abhorrent violence is nothing new under the sun -- Guldensuppe's killer(s) hold their own against any of today's monsters. If there's a greater significance to the case, it's found in the rise of Hearst's tabloid empire. About the only thing that could shove this sensational murder trial off the Journal's front page were Hearst's efforts at prodding America into the Spanish-American War; it seems that, as Collins puts it, "The Guldensuppe case had paved the way for his paper to take it upon itself to shove aside any government, local or national, that moved too slowly to satisfy a pressroom deadline."

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Review-a-Day for Wed, Jun 15: Walt Before Mickey: Disney's Early Years, 1919-1928

by Timothy S. Susanin A review by Charles Solomon

When the extraordinary success of Steamboat Willie made Walt Disney an overnight sensation in 1928, he'd already spent nearly a decade working in animation. During those years, he'd had successes and failures, as Timothy S. Susanin recounts in great detail in his new book Walt Before Mickey.

In 1919, while Disney and his friend Ub Iwerks were working as commercial artists in Kansas City, they taught themselves animation. Disney began exploring the medium with the "Newman Laugh-O-Grams," a series of one-minute topical cartoons for local theater owner Frank Newman. He quit his job and started a studio with money borrowed from friends and relatives. Although the studio went broke, Disney completed the live action/animation Alice's Wonderland, then joined his brother Roy in Los Angeles.

Distributor Margaret Winkler offered Disney a contract for a series based on Alice that would continue the premise of a live-action little girl in a cartoon setting. The series proved successful, but Winkler's business was taken over by her more aggressive husband, Charles Mintz. In 1927, he asked Disney to develop a new character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Disney's real talents as an organizer and story man began to emerge during the making of the "Oswald" series, which garnered good reviews.

But Disney wanted to improve his films. In early 1928, he went to New York City to ask Mintz to raise the price per film; Mintz instead insisted that he take a cut -- or else Disney would lose the character and his studio. Mintz had covertly signed up almost the entire staff so that the studio could go on without Disney. This underhanded deal changed the course of animation history and American popular culture, as it led Disney to create Mickey Mouse.

Susanin is an attorney, and his remarkable thoroughness makes readers wish he were handling a case for them. Unfortunately, he becomes so enamored with details that the result is like reading about Walt through a tea strainer. Does it increase anyone's understanding of Disney's genius to know that in 1922, he rented office space for his fledgling studio from "realtors working for Lawrence Baer, thirty-seven, a Kansas City native and the son of a German immigrant" -- to whom Susanin devotes four lengthy paragraphs?

Walt Disney's life has already been thoroughly documented: More has reportedly been written about him than any other filmmaker except Charlie Chaplin. His work before the creation of Mickey is covered in the more readable, lavishly illustrated Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney by Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman, in addition to five reliable biographies (by Diane Miller and Pete Martin, Bob Thomas, Katherine and Richard Greene, Michael Barrier and Neal Gabler). Minor and often tangential details constitute the only new material in Walt Before Mickey.

Susanin's knowledge of animation history is limited, and this hampers the narrative. He correctly observes that Julius, the black cat in the "Alice" comedies, initially "seemed like a generic response to the popularity of the popular Felix the Cat," but fails to discuss how Felix influenced not only Julius, but Oswald (and Mickey). He notes that Friz Freleng, another Kansas City native who worked briefly for Disney, "eventually became a director at Warner Brothers, and spent over thirty years there," but omits the five Oscars he won.

Walt Before Mickey is a useful resource for serious film scholars, though general readers may find it much too arcane for their interests.

Solomon is the author, most recently, of The Art of 'Toy Story 3' and Tale as Old as Time: The Art and Making of 'Beauty and the Beast.'

This review was originally published by the Los Angeles Times.

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SCARAMOUCHE: A Romance of the French Revolution

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Review-a-Day for Fri, Jun 17: Day of the Oprichnik

by Vladimir Sorokin A review by Alexander Nazaryan

Russia loves to suffer, doesn't it? Nothing confirms its greatness more thoroughly than a capacity for pain, with the renowned ability to drink serving as a sort of corollary to this spiritual resilience. To suffocate for decades under the Marxist-Leninist aegis, to grow potatoes in empty urban lots during the disastrous democratization of the Yeltsin years, to watch Putin reclaim the power (and the wealth) of a czar -- these are tragedies, for sure, but they are also nails on a cross to which Holy Russia all too willingly affixes itself.

Gogol, Bulgakov, Akhmatova, Pasternak, and just about the entire sanguinary twentieth century: literature has functioned in Russian society as a clarion call to wean the people off their collective crucifixion, to remind them that they needlessly resign themselves to leaders who murder and pillage for the higher good of all, that to be Russian and miserable need not be synonymous. It is for this reason that the Russian tyrant has never craved anything so much as to retaliate for spent ink with spilled blood.

Squarely in this tradition of the writer-prophet is Vladimir Sorokin, who, though little known in the United States, is one of the most highly regarded post-communist Russian writers in his homeland -- and also one of the most reviled. He belongs to a brash, punkish, and now middle-aged group (Tatyana Tolstaya, Viktor Pelevin) that paints dystopian, futuristic portraits of a Russian society that now craves iPhones and True Religion jeans far more than the freedoms their predecessors agitated and died for.

For this, Sorokin has earned the predictable ire of the Kremlin, which has retained its old humorlessness under the narrow-eyed Vladimir Putin and his acolyte Dmitri Medvedev, whose sole redeeming quality may well be a love of the band Deep Purple. Sorokin's novel, Blue Lard (2003), featured some choice (and, I would imagine, apocryphal) scenes of the clones of Stalin and Khrushchev engaged in anal intercourse, which in turn led to the youth group Walking Together -- an accurate imitation of the Hitler Youth if there was ever one -- burning copies of Sorokin's novel in front of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Better publicity, or proof positive of his pessimistic vision, could not have been asked for. (There is, I should say, an extended and rather well-done scene of vigorous ass-fucking in Day of the Oprichnik, as well. It an orgy in the truest sense, recalling a somewhat similar, famous scene in Gravity's Rainbow -- another fine novel of power, debauchery, and paranoia.)

The sex here is in a bathhouse, between several oprichniki: secret, violent guards of His Majesty ("we exist to ... keep order and exterminate rebellion") who -- earlier in the single day that constitutes the time span of this novel -- had ingested hallucinogenic fish and raped the wife of a recalcitrant nobleman, while also rooting out the occasional dissident and doing a little bizness, this being the kind of enterprise for which an MBA is less useful than an AK-47. A busy few hours, in all.

The brief, propulsive narrative takes place in 2028, in a futuristic czardom that has also, paradoxically, returned to many of the old ways, from the recrudescence of Orthodoxy to exclamations such as "To Rus! Hail!" that punctuate nearly every page. As in Pynchon, there is a tendency for characters to break out in spontaneous, silly song: "Europa Gas, that parasite/ For Russian gas must pay!" To be fair, nobody ever claimed that Sorokin was the equal of Pushkin. And speaking of Pushkin, almost two hundred years before Day of the Oprichniki takes place, that poet read Gogol's darkly comic Dead Souls and upon finishing the novel cried out, "God, how sad our Russia is!" Well, what a difference a couple of centuries makes. "Russia is alive and well, rich, huge, united," says Andrey Danilovich Komiaga, Sorokin's protagonist, without even an atomic trace of irony.

Of course, it is always a matter of perspective. With his role high up in the oprichina, an order created by Ivan the Terrible but resurrected in Sorokin's post-communist, hyper-capitalistic kingdom, Andrey Danilovich is well insulated from the hot struggles of the poor, ensconced in his Jacuzzi, his servant Fedka fluttering nearby, or speeding along in his "Mercedov," barking into his "mobilov" as the hoi polloi sit through hours of the notorious Moscow traffic. At a restaurant, he exhibits the refined taste of the archetypical Soviet bureaucrat. After a waiter presents him with an array of choices -- "rye vodka with gold or silver sand, Shanghai sturgeon caviar, Taiwanese smoked filled of sturgeon, marinated milk mushrooms in sour cream, jellied beef aspic, Moscow perch, in aspic, Guangdong ham" -- Andrey Danilovich wonders, "And what do you have to eat?"

Sorokin provides many such clever brushstrokes -- if not quite a fully realized landscape -- of what the twin thrust of increasing petrowealth and decreasing openness will do: a huge Great Wall of Russia, stretching across the nation's wide girth, to protect it from "putrefying Europe" and China, which is under the control of a Celestial Ruler; a "Whitestone Kremlin," now that red is no longer in vogue and Lenin no longer lies in his much-visited mausoleum; a state-friendly Radio Rus, where one can order "a minute of Russian poetry." But Day of the Oprichnik also recalls the work of an earlier dissident -- Alexander Solzhenytsin's Ivan Denisovich, whose unadorned, journalistic chronicle of a day in the Gulag opened the West's eyes, not to mention many of Russia's own, to the soul-grinding realities of what the socialist dream had wrought.

Sorokin's novel has a similar and somewhat frustrating lack of introspection, less concerned as it is with actual people than the ideas they represent. We tend to think of the Russian novel as a great rumbling bear, but Sorokin's book is a sleek and darting fish. It coyly alludes to the "Red Troubles" of communism, followed by "White Troubles" and "Gray Troubles," as well as other touchstones of Russian history, both real and imagined, without alighting on them too long -- which may be the sign of a brisk narrative or an incomplete one. As for Andrey Danilovich, our protagonist has that brutal lack of introspection that is necessary for the operation of a totalitarian regime: "This work is -- passionate, and absolutely necessary," he muses in the midst of the putative rape that is his first task of the day. "It gives us more strength to overcome the enemies of the Russian state." (The translation is a bit of a tightrope act, since many of Sorokin's neologisms are tough to preserve in English, but Jamey Gambrell has plenty of experience with this unconventional crowd, and it shows.)

Andrey Danilovich's entire day -- hunting traitors, a steam bath, wringing a little cash from the Chinese, a Siberian clairvoyant, an appointment with the nocturnal and (that old specter again!) half-Jewish czarina -- vacillates between the use of force and the getting of pleasure. Much has been revealed in the course of this Moscow day, but little has been learned. One gets the feeling that when Andrey Danilovich rises tomorrow, he will get into his Mercedov and do it all over again.

Sorokin has not had much of an American audience, but Day of the Oprichnik, along with the publication of his Ice trilogy by the fine NYRB Classics imprint, should attract the readership he deserves. Ice is a sprawling beast of a book about a 1908 meteorite crash in Siberia that engenders a search for some twenty thousand superior beings called Brothers and Sisters of the Light. The meteor explosion is based on fact (the Tunguska event), but everything else is a phantasmagoria on the order of William Vollman or the aforementioned Pynchon.

And while Sorokin is not the most artful craftsman or the most profound, he has a fearless imagination willing to be put to most grotesque and energetic use. His work betrays no impulse to hector the Russian people out of their complacency with sobering chronicles of governmental misdeeds, like so many car wreck photographs shown in driving school; instead it shocks them out of it with the scenes of their Boschian existence. For as one character in Day of the Oprichnik says, "The Russian people aren't easy to work with. But God hasn't given us any other."

Alexander Nazaryan is on the Editorial Board of the New York Daily News. He is at work on his first novel.

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Review-a-Day for Tue, Jun 14: The Hadza: Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania (Origins of Human Behavior and Culture)

by Frank Marlowe A review by Melvin Konner

The few societies that still live by foraging for wild food are of great interest to researchers curious about how our ancestors might have lived before the introduction of agriculture thousands of years ago. Two groups that have been intensively studied are the Hadza people of Tanzania and the !Kung San (also known as the Jun/twasi) of the Kalahari Desert. The Hadza continue to hunt and gather today -- two attempts at settling them ended in disastrous epidemics and a return to the hard but viable life they are so good at. The !Kung way of life has changed in recent years, but much information was obtained about them in the 1960s and 1970s, when they were still living as hunter-gatherers. Two recent books -- Frank W. Marlowe's The Hadza: Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania and Nancy Howell's Life Histories of the Dobe !Kung: Food, Fatness, and Well-Being over the Life-Span -- show how much the Hadza and the !Kung have in common. As someone who spent two years studying the !Kung San as a member of Harvard Kalahari Research Group expeditions in 1969-1971 and 1975, I found both volumes riveting.

Modern work on the Hadza was pioneered by James Woodburn in 1958. Later, Nicholas G. Blurton Jones, joined by Kristen Hawkes, James O'Connell, Frank Marlowe and others, led decades of studies motivated by neo-Darwinian theory. Marlowe's book is based on 15 field trips he made to Tanzania, during which he spent a total of four years with the Hadza, and on dozens of published papers, including his own. It is the most important single source of information about the Hadza, and it is superb, combining many of the virtues of classical ethnography with rigorous quantitative description and experimental hypothesis testing. The book is dedicated "to the Hadza, the fantastic, wonderful Hadza," and to Blurton Jones, "simply the greatest adviser one could ever have." It was Blurton Jones whose vision made study of the Hadza a proving ground for evolutionary theory.

The Hadza occupy an area of about 4,000 square kilometers around Lake Eyasi, a large body of salt water in northern Tanzania. It is remarkable how much they resemble the desert-dwelling traditional !Kung, given the differences in their environments. It is also striking how well both societies fit the generalizations made by Richard Lee and Irven DeVore in Man the Hunter in 1968. Marlowe's excellent comparative chapter, in which he puts the Hadza in the context of all other hunter-gatherers for whom data are available, further confirms most of these generalizations.

Both the Hadza and the !Kung live in small groups with a mean size of about 30 people. These groups move camp several times a year for various reasons, including the availability of food and water. Groups are larger in the dry season and smaller in the rainy season. They are basically egalitarian -- any attempts at domination fail, because people gain others' support or simply leave the group if someone tries to boss them around. There is no role specialization except the division of labor by sex, and male domination is minimal. There are no clans or rules of inheritance passing through one sex, but groups are made up mainly of various kinds of kin. Violence can erupt between two men over a woman, and this is a main cause (among the Hadza, the main cause) of homicide. Meat supplies about 25 to 30 percent of the calories in both diets, and most aspects of child care are very similar between the two cultures. To a former !Kung researcher, it is reassuring to see these and many other commonalities, since the Hadza live in an environment that is more like the one in which we evolved than is that of the !Kung, and the Hadza have been studied with methods and theories that were unavailable when the !Kung were hunting and gathering.

There are also differences between the two societies. The !Kung have dogs, so they hunt in groups when in pursuit of game animals that stand and fight the dogs -- gemsbok (large antelope), for example. Otherwise the !Kung hunt alone, as the Hadza almost always do. Both use poisoned arrows, but the Hadza have much larger bows with heavy pull weights. Hadza children are weaned at least six months earlier than are !Kung children, and interbirth intervals are thus shorter. Hadza children forage for themselves much more. Hadza girls are subjected to partial clitoridectomy at puberty.

Marlowe says that the Hadza divorce rate is "close to the same as that of the !Kung," but this is misleading. As Howell shows, almost all !Kung divorces occur in the first few years of marriage, mainly the first; these are, in effect, trial marriages and are typically childless. Nothing in !Kung culture really matches the common Hadza pattern of men leaving older wives for younger ones, with stepfatherhood resulting if and when the first wife remarries. Cowives exist in both cultures (in about 5 percent of marriages), but among the Hadza the instability of such unions is usually resolved by the abandonment of the older wife, whereas among the !Kung the younger wife departs.

Marlowe tests many evolutionary models. He decisively shows that fathers' provisioning of their wives and genetic children increases the men's reproductive success by shortening interbirth intervals. Men whose wives are breast-feeding bring home more food. Megan Biesele's book about !Kung folklore is called Women Like Meat, and Marlowe's data show that this is true of the Hadza as well, although Hadza men also bring home honey and baobab pods. Grandmothers' contributions also matter -- women are most productive at acquiring food when they are in that age range. Despite the fact that husbands and wives forage separately, proximity of husbands to wives is highly correlated with women's fecundity (as predicted from their ages), which suggests that mate-guarding as well as provisioning figured in the evolution of pair-bonding.

Discussing the reasons for sharing, Marlowe considers nepotism (kin selection), mate provisioning (courtship investment), not-in-kind exchange (meat for honey, say), in-kind delayed reciprocity, costly signaling (to demonstrate foraging ability), and tolerated scrounging. Even with his excellent data, he can't rule out any of them. Clearly, the impulse of pure generosity explains little; in anonymous games such as the prisoner's dilemma, the ultimatum game, and the dictator game, the Hadza were among the least generous people ever tested, despite being among the most generous in their culturally sanctioned everyday life.

Evolutionary theory is second nature for Marlowe, so much so that his transitions back and forth between Hadza, chimpanzees and foraging squirrels may seem abrupt to some. But his respect and affection for these brave people is always palpable, and the ease of his nonhuman comparisons simply reflects the depth and breadth of his training under Blurton Jones, as well as the theoretical awareness that now pervades hunter-gatherer studies.

Such applications of evolutionary theory and human behavioral ecology by Blurton Jones and others were part of the inspiration for Howell's book, in which she returns to data she gathered four decades ago, on Harvard Kalahari Research Group expeditions with Lee and DeVore from 1967 to 1969. Life Histories of the Dobe !Kung is an enormous achievement, confirming what can be done with unique archival data in the right hands. It is the newest on a shelf of books that includes Lorna Marshall's two fine traditional ethnographies of the !Kung; Richard Lee's classic on their subsistence ecology; Marjorie Shostak's Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman; Howell's earlier book, Demography of the Dobe !Kung (which set the standard for hunter-gatherer demography); and others.

So why another book now? Howell writes, "When research methods and theoretical models that were developed in [recent hunter-gatherer] studies are applied to the !Kung,...I am impressed by how much we gain in explanatory power." I am too. Using current life-history theory and analytical methods, Howell places adaptation at the center of her account, but on the sound premise that an organism is its life history. She interprets that lifelong adaptive process by mining her demographic data in combination with height, weight and growth data from the same period (1967-1969), some of it analyzed in later collaborations with Patricia Draper.

The !Kung, like the Hadza, are small in stature as adults, which lessens the burden of the food quest. On normal Western growth curves, most !Kung infants older than one year fall below the third percentile in height and weight. Howell interprets this (as would most pediatricians) to mean that inadequate caloric intake is pulling down their weight, and in turn their height. However, as she recognizes, teaching children to restrict their food intake may be an adaptation for achieving small adult stature. The body mass index (BMI) of most adults is above 18 (the lower end of the desirable range by Western standards), and almost no one has a BMI greater than 25 (the top end of the desirable range). Howell creates a variable she calls BMIDiff -- the actual BMI subtracted from the expected (!Kung) BMI for age and sex -- a key dependent variable in her analyses.

After carefully estimating caloric demands using quantitative data about activities involved in gathering, hunting, leisure, pregnancy and lactation, Howell goes on to assess the caloric productivity of males and females throughout the life cycle. The age curves for adult productivity resemble Marlowe's for the Hadza, with maximum productivity at roughly 40 to 50 years of age. (The productivity of children is much lower among the !Kung.)

The difference between production and consumption of calories among the !Kung is most negative in adolescence and most positive in middle age. The !Kung clearly have a pubertal growth spurt, whereas Marlowe says the adolescent growth spurt in the Hadza is "very minor." He views this in something like the light in which Howell sees slowed !Kung growth after infancy, regarding it as a way of achieving smaller adult size and lower caloric needs.

This brings us to the crux of Howell's argument about children's needs. After the second child, household caloric balance becomes negative, so food must come from somewhere else. Without a partner, neither a mother nor a father could meet the needs of even two children, so Howell, like Marlowe, sees the pair bond as necessary. Howell also sees value in the "grandmother hypothesis" -- the theory that menopause is an adaptation allowing women to increase their reproductive fitness by focusing on existing children and grandchildren. Her data, however, don't strongly support the hypothesis. But just how are the households with more than two children provided for? Here is where BMIDiff, or relative fatness, comes in, as an indicator of investment in offspring. Households do differ significantly in this measure, and we might expect that household caloric balance would predict relative fatness, but there is no significant correlation. As for proximity to kin, multiple regression analysis shows that having a mother, a father, a mother's mother or a father's father around predicts relative fatness -- but, oddly, having a mother's father or a father's mother around predicts thinness.

So there is no simple kin-selection explanation of relative fatness. Using different measures than Marlowe, Howell concludes, like him, that genetic relatedness, reciprocity, tolerated scrounging and costly signaling all contribute to provisioning of children. But ultimately, for her, a rule like "feed the thinnest child" affects almost everyone. The fitness benefit to the recipient is an important predictor of altruism under Hamilton's rule (which states that an altruistic act should be performed when the cost to the actor is less than the benefit to the recipient multiplied by the degree of relatedness between the two individuals). So, given all the factors affecting sharing in !Kung culture, it may be that Howell's feed-the-thinnest-child rule is the most refined that natural selection could come up with.

Nevertheless, Marlowe shows that Hadza men do more for their genetic offspring than for their stepchildren. Howell does not resolve this question for the !Kung, but here is the good news: She has put her entire data archive on the Web, with instructions for accessing it, so that any scientist can use the data. If others follow her example, then future cross-cultural comparisons will be more precise. I would be surprised if it turned out that relatedness doesn't matter, although I expect that it will be shown to be just one factor predicting sharing in hunter-gatherers.

The !Kung today are settled, some successfully, some not. They have made a transition the Hadza have resisted, from living a rough but independent, very ancient lifestyle to being among the poorest people in a poor developing country. It is fortunate that Howell and others were able to study them while they could still teach us so much about human adaptation, and that she has continued the quest in the data archive.

Neither the !Kung nor the Hadza nor both societies together can be a sufficient basis for drawing conclusions about the environments of evolutionary adaptedness. Given that some of our ancestors dwelt in tropical forests, groups like the Aka, Efe and Ache are also key models. Before and during the human dispersal out of Africa, it is highly likely that adaptation to shorelines, including shellfish collecting, was important, and for this we turn to models in Australia. In some times and places, rich resources led to higher population densities and probably more complex social structures; here Native Americans of the Northwest Coast offer insight.

But the Hadza and the !Kung do tell us much about what it means to hunt and gather in warm climates on open plains, especially in Africa, the site of most of human evolution. That the Hadza can still be studied as hunter-gatherers and the !Kung data can still shed new light on this way of life should be cause for celebration. Hunter-gatherers are courageous, resilient, highly skilled, hardworking people who deserve both our admiration and the most thoughtful scientific description and analysis. Both of these excellent books meet that challenge.

Melvin Konner, who teaches anthropology and behavioral biology at Emory University, is the author of The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit, second edition, revised and updated (Times Books, 2002), and The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind (Harvard University Press, 2010).

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THE READING PROMISE: My Father and the Books We Shared

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